Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dog Woman by Gail Grenier - An Interview and Kindle book giveaway

I met Gail Grenier more than ten years ago when I took her creative writing class at Waukesha County Technical College. She's a terrific teacher--encouraging and enthusiastic--and best of all for me? She made writing fun.

We kept in touch, and years later we reconnected because we both belong to a screenwriting organization, Wisconsin Screenwriting Forum, or WSF, as some members call it. (Or WTF, if you're in a really silly mood, and Gail and I are often in silly moods.) Later, Gail asked me for advice when she was preparing to upload her novel, Dog Woman, to Kindle. We'd completely switched roles--now I was the teacher.

And so the student had become the master...

I invited Gail to talk about her novel, Dog Woman, on my blog because I found her unconventional path toward writing this book fascinating. I mean, come on now--who covers a story for a newspaper, thinks about it for twenty years, writes it as a screenplay, and then converts it into a novel?  Read on to get the deets (as the kids say).

Oh, and after you're done reading her answers to my very insightful questions, leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to win the Kindle version of Dog Woman.  A name will be randomly drawn one week from today, on  August 13th. Make sure you leave a way to be contacted, or else check back next Saturday to see if your name is chosen.

Q. Dog Woman is inspired by a true story. Tell us how you came to find out about the original dog woman and why you decided to fictionalize the story.

A. In 1990, a woman's bones were found in a field in my village. I was a newspaper writer at the time, and my editor gave me the assignment. He asked me, "How does someone get to be a skeleton in a field in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin?"

I got the idea for the novel from the three months I spent investigating the life of the woman whose bones were found. When she was alive, she kept 33 Siberians and wolf-Siberian hybrids on her rented farmstead. She lived a reclusive but fairly happy life until a corporation kicked her off the land.

When I learned the ultimate answer to my editor's question (“How does someone get to be a skeleton in a field in Menomonee Falls?”), I could never get the story out of my head -- for more than 20 years. Every time I drove by her old property, I imagined her running through the woods there with her animals. I always felt sorry for the dog woman. I thought her struggle and tragedy would make a great movie.

At first I wrote the story as a nonfiction screenplay. But people who test-read the script said it was too depressing. One animal lover friend said she wouldn’t read any story or go to any movie where anything bad happened to an animal.

I was ready to give up. Then one day I was at a Cajun dance gathering and I danced with a storyteller named Reid Miller, who is from Madison, Wisconsin. I had never met him before. As we danced, we talked. He asked me what I was up to. I told him I was trying to write a screenplay. He asked me what it was about and became really interested in the story.

I told him I was stuck because the story was too harsh and horrible for my test-readers. The dog woman wasn’t a sympathetic character for them. Reid suggested bringing in a child to befriend the dog woman, to soften her character. I knew immediately that this was a perfect idea. Reid’s a storyteller, after all.

Thus, 11-year-old George Woods was born, as well as a fictional world surrounding what remains the mostly-true story of a real person who just didn’t fit in.

Q. You wrote the screenplay for Dog Woman first, and then converted it into a novel. What was your writing process like? Did you make any changes along the way?

The screenplay took me four years to write (and rewrite, and rewrite). When it became obvious that it was going to take a long time to sell, I decided to convert the story into a novel. Perhaps if the novel sold well, someone would be interested in it as a movie. I was inspired by you, Karen, when your self-published Kindle book “A Scattered Life” was optioned for a film.

I was on break from teaching creative writing at Waukesha County Technical College, so I locked myself in a trailer for two weeks and wrote from five to seven hours every day.

[Okay that sounds more extreme than it is – it’s a cozy old house trailer on a lake about 75 miles north of home. My husband and I bought it in 2009 and I envisioned it as my “writing shack.” August 2010 was the first time the trailer really became my writing retreat. It was heavenly to be able to write without the duties, distractions, and joys of being home among family and friends, laundry and lawn, volunteer work and telephone.]

My writing process was this: I had the script lying next to me as I wrote on my laptop. I used the dialog I had already written and just had to plump up the external description and inner thoughts of the main character – George.

I sat at a desk at the front window of the trailer. When I stopped to think, I could look out at beautiful Little Green Lake and the island sitting not far offshore. I could wave at my retired neighbors. They’d drive by daily and wave; they were like my guardian angels and I thank them in the book acknowledgments. When my back got tired from sitting at the desk, I typed while sitting in a recliner.

When I needed a break, I walked my dog. She got a lot of walks. I ate a LOT of peanuts and dried fruit while I wrote, and I gained five pounds. Grr.

It was hard for me to “plump up” the script, because for four years I’d been training myself to be brief and to convey everything through dialog. I think it would be easier to convert a novel into a screenplay. I’m a journalist by training and we like to get to the point. My plumping up didn’t make the book very fat – it’s under 200 pages. My body plumped up more than my script did.

Eventually I enjoyed being inside George’s head. It let me re-live my own very happy childhood. I felt a freedom in going where George wanted to go – imagining shapes in clouds, walking on curbs, reading and dreaming.

The biggest change in the novel as compared to the script is more backstory that you just cannot fit in a screenplay. I enjoyed including that backstory – details about my beloved Wisconsin fields, forests and rivers; Cajun history that I find fascinating; religious and ethnic roots that I never get tired of exploring.

Q. Although it’s not necessarily a kids’ book, some educators have expressed an interest in having their students read and discuss the book. What themes in the book make it a good choice for classroom discussion?

A. I’m going to let Diane Harley speak here. She’s been a middle school language arts teacher since the 70s and plans to read Dog Woman to her students this fall. She gave me permission to quote her. This is what she said:

“I loved loved loved the book. I would love to have this book for a read-aloud or have students read the book. It has such good lessons, and situations so realistic for kids today, that could lead to great discussions. The book touches on a lot of things: nontraditional blended families, drinking, sports put-downs, bullying, kids not fitting in. I loved George’s persistence. He never was afraid to be himself or see what he could accomplish even though he was mocked so many times. He didn’t let anybody get him down; he did what he knew he should do. I thought the portrayal of junior high kids was great, how they speak and act and insult each other. I loved the sharing of the Big League gum. I loved the relationships - so many relationships. I really cried at the end – I guess that’s a sign of a good book.”

Q. Give us a quick story synopsis.

A. It’s 1989. George Woods is eleven years old and lives with his widowed mother, his divorced uncle, and his cousin. His mother still grieves for her husband and pays scant attention to her son. George is small for his age and doesn’t fit in with the sandlot gang, especially two bullies who are older and bigger than he is. He envies his cousin, who is one year older, a lot taller, and the only girl on the team.

George learns that there’s more to life than baseball after he meets a Romanian immigrant named Bibi. She’s a reclusive neighbor who keeps and breeds 12 Siberian huskies and one wolf-dog. Bibi is notorious for the strange human-sized wood carvings she creates and sets up all over her yard. The neighbor kids refer to her as “the witch of the woods.”

After the dog woman lets George into her secret world, he discovers the sad story behind her distrust of humans. She teaches him how to carve wood, how to care for dogs, how to be a friend. Most important, she teaches him to stand up for what he believes.

Bibi shares a dream with George: that someday dog parks will exist so people can let their animals run free, like her dogs do every day. When tragedy befalls his friend, George confronts the bullies, a corporation, village trustees and citizens to create a memorial to her – a memorial the likes of which has never before existed.

Q. When will the paperback version of Dog Woman be released?

A. I don’t know. A writing friend is helping me get it published through CreateSpace. I’m crossing my fingers for this fall.

Q. How can we order Dog Woman on Kindle?

A. Click on this link:  Dog Woman by Gail Grenier ($2.99)

Q. Anything you want to add?

A. For readers curious about the real-life dog woman, you can find photos and my original newspaper story on my website. Click on:

My blog, a light-hearted look at life, inside and out:

Thank you for your interview, Karen! I was an interviewer/reporter for 20 years, and it’s odd being on the “other end of the microphone.” It was hard for me to go in depth with my answers but then I remembered how much my readers liked it when my interview subjects “went deep.” I think when people have the courage to open up and reveal what’s inside, everyone relates – because we’re all the same person deep down.


J. E. Medrick said...

I used to live next door to a woman and her husband who kept 2 Siberians in their tiny apartment. Unfortunately, they were more of a nuisance than of "finding yourself" value :P

Hope I win, would love to read it :)

YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward, Thief, Thug
Adult: Shackled

Karen McQuestion said...

J.E. Medrick, if no one else comments, you've got a sure thing. Thanks for leaving a comment. :)

Jon Olson said...

That's a fascinating backstory. As a journalist, I find it interesting to see how others translate the nonfiction adventures of reporting into credible fiction. It's hard! But then, writing credible fiction of any kind is hard, I'm sure.

Jon Olson
The Petoskey Stone

Bill B said...

Great post ... both the story of you & Gail, and the way Dog Woman evolved. Plus, Gail just reeled me in & made another Kindle sale. But please keep me in the contest, and if I win I'll give it to another Kindle-person ツ (hope I'm not overusing the smile!)

Karen McQuestion said...

Jon, you write credible fiction, and you make it look easy.

Bill, I don't think it's possible to overuse the smiley. There seems to be a shortage in this world...

Sean McCartney said...

Great interview. Gail did you create any Teacher's Guide for your book? I know I did for my novels and it helped teachers in getting the book accepted at their schools.
I teach 6th grade Language Arts and this story seems perfect for some of my kids.

Good luck,


Sean McCartney said...

Great interview. Gail did you create any Teacher's Guide for your book? I know I did for my novels and it helped teachers in getting the book accepted at their schools.
I teach 6th grade Language Arts and this story seems perfect for some of my kids.

Good luck,


Gail Grenier said...

Wow, Karen, I love your intro to the interview. My head will be too big to get out the door! Thanks again for being such a generous friend & writer (like Charlotte in Charlotte's Web!!)

Karen McQuestion said...

Like Charlotte in Charlotte's Web? Aw, that was nice. She was a true friend and a good writer.

And Sean, hopefully Gail will be back to answer your question soon!

Gail Grenier said...

Thank you to all those who made comments. My blog is so new that I've only had a few comments, so this is something wonderful for me.

Sean McCartney, I created a bunch of discussion questions & put them at the end of the book. I was wondering about a teacher's guide, i.e. with suggested answers. Diane Harley is going to read the book to her sixth graders this fall. Woop woop! Any tips on creating a teacher's guide??

Sean McCartney said...

Gail-Thanks for the response. If you get a moment check my web site and I have a free downloadable guide. I tried to take everything that I have done as a teacher that worked and talked with all of the Language Arts teachers on things that have worked for them over the years. The one thing I did do was align the material with the new National Standards.
Let me know what you think and please borrow, use or take whatever you like from the guide and make it for you.

Gail Grenier said...

Sean McCartney, I'm going to check out your website NOW! Thanks so much for your generosity. I'm a former seventh and eighth grade English teacher, so my background should help... but it's been years since I've been in the junior high classroom, and I know nothing of today's national standards. To school I go! Thanks again.

Gail Grenier said...

Bill B. and Sean McCartney, I hope you enjoy the book. Please let me know what you think.